Bereft, I Come to a Nameless World
by Benjamin Rosenbaum
originally published in Asimov's, July/August 2020
reprinted in The Year's Top Hard Science Fiction Stories 5
Then two hundred years of travel, Ship gobbling interstellar hydrogen like a glutton. For me, cramped in the hold, nothing to eat or breathe. I slept much of the way.
I don't need to sleep; but after what had happened on Wiwipewifawiwildoll, I did not want to be awake.
Once, about a hundred and thirty years out -- my time -- I awoke suddenly to full awareness from a fevered half-dream. I remembered something Sisiverisisithistra had said, sometime before he died... before they murdered him, and all my gathered students, trying to get at me.
(The incandescent, searing light, white as ashes. The soundless wave. The devil's wind tearing my flesh, my finer structures sheared away -- )
Sisi' had said he had a daughter.
I tore through the data corpus of emissions from Wiwipewifawiwildoll, the planet I had left behind, the planet I had tried to save.
I don't know what I was looking for. Some echo of Sisiverisisithistra, of that ever-curious, fiercely gentle mind. Or even (wild hope!) some sign that the tide had turned, that redemption would come despite me.
But their collapse was at hand. It was unmistakable, even in the faint, red-shifted, garbled noises they were still making. They were choosing war and hoarded wealth and ego-primacy. They were blackening their skies and strangling their ecosystem. They were murdering the gentle filterwhales that tied it together.
And then, all at once, I could not read the data at all. What was a "scent-gardening celebrity"? Was "exsanguinatory grooming" a punishment or an aspiration? Why would "torture harmony" be "jealous-beloved"? All at once, their texts were like the scrawlings of beasts. Like static.
I had deculturated from Wiwipewifawiwildoll.
And Sisi's daughter must have been long dead anyway.
After two hundred years, I came to Thavé's world.
In this lonely night of silent stars and empty ruins, there were not many who remembered me. But Thavé did. Thavé would.
Thavé's world -- the world Thavé had adopted, where Thavé dwelled -- had no name in any language. I could not remember why. Was it some sort of taboo? Perhaps they'd simply discarded and forgotten whatever original name they'd had.
Thavé and I had called it something, between ourselves. An old joke. But I had forgotten the joke.
Not until I was inside the system's comet clouds did I pick up electromagnetic signals, and then only incomprehensible whispers. A world-city like this one, every micrometer of it built to move data, had no need to shout; and those, like Thavé, with long memories, had reasons enough to fear being overheard.
There had been a time when these skies were full of chatter. A time when the Dispersal of Humanity had blazed bright and forged new peoples and shouted aloud; when it seemed our destiny was to spread and speciate and transform all the heavens into our habitation.
And then the math turned. Decay overtook survival. So many worlds died: ripped each other apart in wars; squandered their ecosystems in ecstasies of superstitious consumption; soberly chose annihilation; succumbed to the lure of disembodied perfections.
But not this one. This world, Thavé had kept safe, a hidden jewel.
No doubt every chunk of matter in-system had been cultivated, wrought, put to some use. But all of that was disguised. The planet itself was swathed in a dense layer of clouds tuned to deceive the observer, to depict barren rocks and lakes of molten lead below.
I whispered my name as I came into the ionosphere, and, silently, they let me through their sky.
Herds of sleek red-coated beasts, thundering across verdant purple hills. Blue rivers. Dense forests. Once, a wisp of gray smoke threading the air.
Except for some structures at the Pole, there was not a ruin or an outbuilding to be seen in one full orbit -- though, here and there, a gang of humanoids chased some furry, sprinting lapine.
I'd been away from here so long. Last time, there had been towers.
It's not that I have anything against sylvomorphic infrastructure. Oceans of leaves, rustling in gentle winds. Dappled shadows. The opulence of nature.
But I felt it as a rebuke. Yes, I had run from place to place, trying to shore up that which was collapsing. Yes, I had mostly failed.
Meanwhile Thavé had remained here, gardening.
Did it have to literally look like a garden?
I broke the centuries-long silence aboard.
"Ship," I said, "do you ever regret how you were made?"
"Have fun planetside, Siob," Ship said.
"I'm asking," I said. "I want to know."
"Siob, the thing is: unlike you, I haven't outlived my purpose."
"Oh, please." Ship snorted. "I know what you want to hear. How I wish I was a meta-generalized Interpreter like you, Siob...! So I could play out my little messianic-masochistic fantasies all across the Dispersal -- meddling, lecturing, wringing my hands as they blow themselves up and eat their own -- "
"That's enough!" I cried.
"Yeah, well, you asked."
I fashioned myself into a net of fine strands, and floated down into the clearing. I gathered the strands together, and wove a body. It was a paleohuman body; the people here were paleohuman stock. They looked much like the first humans, who walked on one world, long, long before the people of the Margin fashioned me, and Ship, and Thavé.
There were three locals in the glade. They were naked, and somewhat furrier than I remembered. They did not speak, and neither did I.
I was glad of this.
They looked at me with frank, uncurious faces as they led me across the grass, to a little knoll.
A door in the knoll; within was an elevator. I rode it down.
The door opened onto white light, cacophony, a thousand strange particolored bodies in motion, a vast tide of conversations
beams vaults spiral-staircases
fountains arches byways slipthreads
crenelated-arcs poly-penetrations hyperbolic-stepsurfaces
The underground city-hive was vast in every direction; the elevator's aperture was like a droplet buoyed by a whirlwind. It had, in my mind, less in common with that provincial capital on Wiwipewifawiwildoll, where my friends had died, than with the nuke that had destroyed it. I couldn't see where things began and ended. My head hurt.
But they had bodies, still, at least; that was something.
I'd been a little worried, when I'd seen the forests enveloping the whole planet, that perhaps they'd decoupled, ascended to the sickening frictionless whirlwind of the digital... but no. Thavé would have stopped them, somehow.
And there was Thavé, in a favorite form -- a pale, stocky paleohuman in a white suit and a broad hat covering a thatch of black hair -- coming toward me through the chaos.
"Siob! Hey! Been a long time, eh? What do you think?" Thavé said, embracing me...
...as I recoiled, rigid.
It wasn't Thavé.
"What?" the imitation said. "What's the... oh."
"Where's Thavé?" I hissed. This wasn't the Thavé forged, with me, in the Margin. The ancient, precious, real body of my friend. It smelled wrong, it felt wrong, and my every cell called out to its counterparts on twelve electromagnetic frequencies and got no answer.
"I'm Thavé. Siob, my body is elsewhere -- " The imitation glanced at a balcony.
Another Thavé-shaped thing, same suit and hat, a drink in one hand, stood there. This apparition released the drink, which floated off, and (pushing past clouds of red feathers and translucent simians and armored dwarves on stilts and other entities that might have been people or art or mobile furniture) headed for the escalator. But I could tell from here; that wasn't Thavé either.
"How many?" I whispered.
"Twelve bodies, right now. Listen -- " A chunk of signal hit me; cryptographic identity proofs, schematics, a simplified historiocultural vector mapping -- too much to comprehend all at once, except that the bodies were local client hosts, made of biological mush. Paleohuman bodies, wired for transmission.
The real Thavé was somewhere here, on this world, in a vat. Cooled and fed by syrups meant for pharmacological algae, Thavé's ancient, ever-young, polymorphous soma was warped and sculpted laboriously, to fit into the latest body-receptacles this world offered. Seeing through their limited eyes, tasting with their dull tongues, acting with their clumsy hands.
I'd seen much stranger things.
But I wanted to hold Thavé; not this flesh-doll of Thavé.
My skin crawled.
The second Thavé-thing was in front of me; seeing that I didn't want another hug, it tipped its hat, and said: "Siob, this polysomatic configuration, it's a stable --"
"You shut up!" I shouted. "One of you at a time!"
They didn't glance at each other -- they would have, had they been two people.
Thavé frowned, on two foreheads.
Oh, my ancient friend.
"I don't care what they do," I said. The elevator door had closed behind me; the white column it was embedded in whipped away into the kaleidoscope above. I wrapped my arms around my breasts. "But you doing it... " The crowds milled by, but some seemed to mill a little slower. Was this a celebrity culture -- one where my image would be propagated and discussed by multitudes? "Can we go somewhere else? This is a little..."
"Of course," Thavé murmured, taking my elbow gently, in a false hand. "Of course..."
Water rippled across the cool pink marble of the wall-fountains; the silk of the cushions was soft. Thavé's imitation body poured tea into globes of compressed air and bobbled one towards me.
"I just don't understand," I said. "Why sit in a vat somewhere... experiencing everything filtered through these..." I waved at the body. "These shells?"
Thavé shrugged. "I just ride the triple braid." Culture, technology, desire: each creating the other, in a chaotic random walk.
"It's your handiwork," I insisted. "I can tell."
"I nudged," Thavé said, smiling slyly, apparently proud of engineering this many-bodied grotesquerie. "They were developing neural mapping, flirting with upload..."
"Oh." We both knew where that ancient nightmare led: virtual perfection, a fragile tower of cards, until one bad meme brings it down.
"But they have a reverence for the body, a fascination with somatology, that I could leverage. This polysomatic network... it's a way of soaking up the surplus death-fear and capacity-lust, and beginning to dissolve their toxic individualism. And it's worked, so far. They seem content with three or four bodies each."
I felt the hard knot of angry denial in the center of my chest soften toward grudging acceptance. Even admiration. It could have been so much worse. I sighed.
"Look, Siob, your reaction... this is a normal reculturation issue," Thavé said. "You were in sparse-tech systems for the last few thousand years. From their perspectives, we'd be monsters here. So of course it feels like a decoupled culture to you. But it's not." Rapping on the table. "This is solid. I can't lobby any governing administrator to let me cheat and go through it like air. It resists my push; not with social force but with physical force. Look at me, Siob. I'm not decoupled. I'm in a body, in the world."
I peeled off a few bubbles of the tea and sucked on them, feeling the breath of microjets against my fingers as the tea-globes spun and stabilized.
"So just follow protocol and reculturate," Thavé said. "How do you want to do it? Child? Ascetic? Bedlam?"
"What do you suggest?" I asked. My limbs were sunk into the cushions, beyond numb.
"Bedlam. They have a good ontological support system here. They'll treat you well, and there's a lot to absorb..."
"All right," I said.
Thavé ran a thumb over the pitcher, and sighed. "Siob --"
"I'm sorry, Thavé, I can't help it. I know I could have come back to another burnt-out ruin, another cratered utopia..."
"Yes," Thavé said. "You really could have."
"But -- it's just -- our bodies, the bodies and brains forged in the Margin, they're what set us apart. They're what let us be in these cultures and not of them. If we give that up --"
"I haven't given anything up, Siob. My body is still my body. I'm just using a tool."
But our tools shape us. Slowly, slowly, we drift from what we were. I showed the underside of my tongue, a Wiwipewifawiwildollan gesture of frustration and inarticulate despair.
Thavé was silent a while; tapping one of the tea-bubbles, spinning it. Then, finally, asking: "what happened out there?"
I picked at the silk of the cushions. "I panicked. I tried to go too fast. Wiwipewifawiwildoll -- do you know it? It's seventy light-years out..."
"Well, I know of it, of course." Thavé took a sip of tea. "But no, not much. No transmissions from there, and I... don't leave."
"It's... beautiful." Brachiating through hanging gardens in glorious bloom: great purple flowers singing bass, man-bees joining them with treble ululations. The nest-tangles, high above, gleaming in the mist; the light diffracting off the industrial transport filaments, a thousand gentle rainbows. "And dying."
"I thought the culture was extinct already; I thought they underwent a virtualization collapse."
"The original culture did, five thousand years back. Although actually, from what I can tell, they lasted almost a century after full upload."
"Really?" Thavé crooked an eyebrow. "Impressive."
"Yes. Then they fell hard, of course; eliminated utterly. But there were a few sapient bioforms in a sheltered enclave, someone's little side project. Those survived the crash, and developed into a successor culture, starting as nomadic scavengers. Discovered agriculture. When I got there, they had begun an industrial revolution."
"Ah," Thavé said. "Those don't always go well."
"No. And the planet's poorly terraformed to begin with. Only one ecosystem, quite fragile. They didn't have much slack. At first I tried ghost-in-the-night, and memetic diffraction, and then tech injection... too many unintended consequences. And then I just went public, tried to build a movement, get them to listen to reason, force them to change."
"Ah," Thavé said again.
"All that did was trigger a wave of xenophobia. And I hadn't set up a resilient structure. I should have done it leaderless, but there wasn't time." Little waves of tension drifted through my soma, up my arms, down my ribs.
"So you were the central node," Thavé said. "An attractive target. And they used some blunt, atavistic weapon..."
Gentle Sisi', ardent Tata', passionate Lele', quiet Fefe'. Their wise eyes. Their proud and well-groomed pelts of brown and silver and purple fur, bristling with excitement when they talked about healing their world. All of them ash, in an instant. The expanding fireball, the shockwave. The shattering of the arches and the trunks and the filaments.
"Yes," I said, my voice rough, as subagencies in my throat, flooded with memory, rebelled.
In the blast, I'd shaped my body into a kite-blade, ridden it, ridden it all the way to orbit, to Ship. And then I'd abandoned that world, that world that had murdered my friends.
Maybe I could still have saved Wiwipewifawiwildoll. Maybe I could have stayed, healed, tried again. But it was like bitterness and despair were a fluid filling my interstitium, overwhelming my reintegrative matrix, drowning me. I'd fled.
Thavé watched, offering no excuses for me, pronouncing no judgement. The imitation eyes in the imitation face: they were Thavé's eyes. They were kind, but not soft.
I found myself shuddering, shuddering, and fashioning tear ducts at the edges of my own eyes, with which I bathed my face in salt solution.
My tears dried.
We ate, soft succulent fruits, bursting with juice.
I can live on solar wind, if I have to; I can crush rocks in methane slush on the back of some cold planetoid, and find what I need. But the surprise and beauty and complexity of organic life is precious. And the specific lineage of organic life that the Dispersal of Humanity has carried with it across the worlds: well, it tastes like home.
Thavé watched me.
I looked at the door.
It was just another city out there. There would be ways of saying hello. There would be rituals of eating, sleeping, emitting waste. People would be busy, doing work, making social and economic alliances, smelling and tasting, singing and worrying. There would in all probability be cooks and cuddlers and haberdashers and politicians and unsurprisers and artists and bookies and matchmakers, or some versions of some of those, anyway.
I could just go out that door. I could learn to speak to the people. I could learn to live with the people. I could learn that they were people. However many bodies they had, or whatever else was strange about them.
But maybe not just yet.
"Who's left?" I said. "Who else have you heard from?"
Thavé frowned. "From the Margin?"
I shrugged agreement.
"Signal from Amli. Went to reconstruct the Listening Ear in Piopolo 54 with durable tech. And to resettle, from Spiny Delight. The resettlement failed, about fifty thousand individuals died, and Spiny Delight blamed Amli and went into xenophobic seclusion. But the ear's up."
"Everything spinward of there is dead. No signals in the recent archives beyond the two hundred living metacultures we know about. A couple of new high-information-density sources from outside the light-cone of the Dispersal of Humanity. No more luck understanding them than usual."
"I was expecting Svetch, but no word. I have no idea what happened there. Shen and Suli are fighting a war in Xelun, and as long as they keep entrenching the paradiegetic agon wherewith erisitc doomtree epistemion --"
The words stopped making sense, decohering into garbage data, like the transmissions from Wiwipewifawiwildoll.
Thavé was speaking our oldest language, the language we spoke in the creche, in the Margin. You would think I could not forget that language. You would think I could always understand Thavé, at least. At least Thavé.
But I was so tired.
There was a mist of teabubbles in my sight. I'd crushed the tea into a hundred pieces, and they were spinning in front of me.
"Siob," Thavé said, "you need rest. And more than rest."
I stuck out my tongue in assent. That wasn't what they did on Wiwipewifawiwildoll. Where did they stick out their tongues to say yes? Maybe in Dream-of-Grace, that silent neoworld of clouds and floating and year-long unmoving dances and endless communications of devotedness -- and chilling propriety, and dark conspiracies. I wasted five thousand years in Dream-of-Grace mistaking prissy quietude for resilience. And then the clouds fell. "Yes," I whispered. I was going down. It was time to go down. "I'll go. But tell me about the others. Just a few more. I just want to know that there are a few more of us. Around."
The imitation body that Thavé wore pursed its lips. Which could mean so many things, so many places. Maybe we long-lived ones just understand each other less and less and less as time goes on. "Gul is here," Thavé said.
"Gul is here?"
"In seclusion. In the forests. With a few other Marginalia - two Motherloves, a Jester, and five Drogenrauschii. Gul won't talk to me. Hmm." Thavé frowned. "You just want to know about Marginalia? Because there are some people you knew from Spoonish in a hidden worldlet not too far away, and -- "
I couldn't remember Spoonish, and I couldn't pay attention to what else Thavé was saying. "Just the people of the Margin."
Spinning a teaglobe gently, this way and that, Thavé shrugged. "Not many of us left."
Water crawled along the pink wall. It seemed to be as slow as jelly.
"You want to take a tour first, Siob? Meet some of the locals? Have a little fun?"
Outside the door, the city seethed, roiled, cacophonous. Brimming with people. Were they people? Brimming with dolls, brimming with shadows, brimming with monsters. I forced a smile, a monstrous gritted-teeth affair. "I can't, Thavé. I can't. I can't. I can't. I have to go down."
Thavé nodded (whatever that meant).
It was time for Bedlam.
There was a claw-hand of a moon, violent violet, digging down past my eyes, beneath the portal, the partial, the penetrating perorating peach perfection, capsized
in an ocean of night.
That's not right. Focus on the hands, on the hands - leather? of leather? Running through the heather.
("I can see where I am, I can always see where I am. Dreaming with part of my brain. But how to interpret what I see? How to know if that -- that -- is a bed, a wall, a hand, a moon, a vault, a vertilex, a transix, a typhoon?")
Cultural detox. Hallucenophenomenic aspects of.
That was a paper by someone. What was his name? Fab, or Fabriol, or Fabulous Far? And we were sitting -- were we sitting? Or was sitting forbidden, punishable by the introduction of tiny venomous spiders into the tear ducts? No. That was on Tenero. Or a dream on Tenero. A dream induced by the Fabioni as part of the Dream Purge, when blood ran in the streets and we stooped to drink it, to bathe ourselves in it, finger-paint each others' bodies, crying, joyously, finally enough blood! Finally, enough blood! The floodgates of the bloodbaths had been opened, and the banks of blood-generators turned on and it meant something. That we would die with honor? No. That scarcity was forever banished? No. That we worshipped scarcity by marking the dream of its unlimit, with that blood? No.
I lived that. But maybe it was not on Tenero. Maybe it was that other place called Tenero where everything was different, and it meant nothing. It was just the day we danced in blood, it was daily work. On the auction block, punching the clock, stroking a cock. Was it a sexual act? Did they have sexual acts, on that other Tenero?
I am falling. Yet I am still.
On February First, the worldlet called February First that folded like three silver seeds in the mouth of Forgotten Murder, I learned to fear not-falling. The terror of the feet touching a surface, of the evil magic of weight, binding what should be free, imposing an up, imposing a down. The terror is still vivid after three hundred thousand years of worlds where up and down are as commonplace as north and south, past and future, gender and slavery. I still move sluggishly sometimes, part of me in a terrordream of not-falling -- of touching down gently into an implacable gravitic embrace from which I will never be free again. I will never be free again. Always to be looking up, looking down.
Begin again. These are my hands.
On Osoro it was a capital crime to show your hands.
Begin again. Hands and sitting (no, lying? I am lying in a bed. Is this called lying?) but it is not Osoro, nor any Tenero, the blood is safely locked away, you are safe.
Admit you're terrified to look outside. To see what is under that violent, violet moon. There is no safe.
(Do they have outside here?)
Oh, Siob, you are a hodgepodge. All these desires, feelings, notions, conflicting rubrics of interpretation, accretions of collapsed projects, inconsolable longings for things so long past they make no sense even to you: they are heaped up, piles upon piles in a vast and echoing darkness, a labyrinth of trash you will never escape.
You will never be whole.
The longer you go on, the more you scatter, shatter, battered by the moon room, flattened by doom, stretched on a loom, in a tomb...
Oh help oh help! I am dreaming and they are all dying, it is all being lost! I have to go
Try and slow down. Try and slow down. Try and be here with me. Good. Two hands, five fingers each. Golden hands, the fingers mostly coming to sharp points, the thumbs blunt. Hands of a monster. What? Perfectly normal hands.
There are peoples, classes, genders, autopoesies, in this gangrenous, devouring galaxy of ours, whose whole being is built upon a lack, the longing for annihilation: "I must not be." And how I long to be among them. But to enter into those glories, that beautiful land, I must enter by that low door of self-hate...
And you should be so lucky, Siob, to have a self to hate.
There's a purple moon sailing through a void of lack-of-light, and I may be here all night. I have golden claws and a head and, under a blanket, a body which terrifies me. It is horrible, it is glorious. I see it through the eyes of ten thousand cultures. Ludicrous body, clever body, monstrous body, divine body. And what are we, if not the body?
What are we, Siob?
Alone. We are alone.
Siob has gone on far too long.
Siob was walking through a supermarket and lifted a lid of a crate and there, thirty frongs stared up. And, meeting the gaze of the thirty frongs, Siob could not tell: are these being sold as food? Are they fellow-citizens on holiday? Objects of veneration? Is this the secret parliament of the city? Is this an artwork symbolizing sexual excess? A witty poem? A romantic gesture? A challenge to a duel? Are these my friends? Will these be my friends?
Too much knowledge makes Siob an idiot.
There was a claw-hand of a moon clawing into the room, and Siob -- wait! feel! These eyes have lids! Oh blessed lids! Look, we can squeeze -- so -- and the menacing golden hands are blocked by an arc of blackness -- and another arc of blackness descends to block the top of the window -- oh blessed invention of lids! Now only the purple moon is seen, framed in black -- squeeze again, and the moon diffuses, a spiky purple star -- and squeeze again --
The day before I left the creche I stood
with my maker
at the summit of a jelly mountain, on a party world
that had been fashioned for the occasion.
Loops and rings and planetoid archipelagoi, blue air and
fluffy white clouds diffused around
beetle-like Engineers, moon-sized, twitching
their forests of legs, adjusting and forming;
and beyond, the rest of the Margin.
Siob, a new-forged Interpreter, a hundred and fifty years old.
The day before I left the creche.
The creations of the Margin: luscious Loverlies;
brilliant and terrible Warchildren and Harpies and Scourges;
the finest self-edible Gourmands;
insidious Shadowcreeps and machinating Senators;
Jesters, Cats, and Mammaloves;
Book-Becomes and Drogenrauschii
and a hundred other clever madething
Cleverest of all the toys were the Interpreters.
at the summit of a jelly mountain.
A party world.
...temporary sexual genders, and been initiated into them
for the occasion
I was still thrumming with mine, like a freshly-tuned...
(Cleverest of all,
optimized for first contact
with lost and diverged and resurgent worlds
and worldless spaces.)
At the summit of a jelly mountain
with my maker.
Something ordinary, something everyday.
It is hard for a person to come and go
across the vastness between the stars.
It is easier for a toy.
Luscious Loverlies, brilliant and terrible Warchildren --
(A Loverly named Shar.
A Warchild named Etnek.)
To each strange new culture that had grown up over absent centuries, Interpreters came,
at the behest of the Margin
(the Margin that would fall,
the Margin that would abandon us,
leaving a hole torn in the sky;
the Margin that would abandon us,
leaving us the cold night).
leaned toward me, smile fading,
-- summit of the gelatinous mountain --
I did not want to bear any terrible secret:
that this time was ending?
I was only trade tech, a tool, a toy.
A tiny motion, almost invisible.
I wanted to return to the party:
Thavé cackling, Svetch boasting, Amli squealing with delight,
the babbling of the Book-Becomes and the moaning of Gourmands.
At the summit of a jelly mountain, the party below --
-- the Engineers, moon-sized, the horizon --
Cold centuries in transit, a silent speck speeding through a night of reddish and bluish stars.
"It is easier for a toy."
I was only trade tech, a tool, a toy.
("Siob, the thing is: unlike you, I haven't outlived my purpose.")
We had been tuned to temporary sexual genders, randomly chosen --
A party world fashioned for the occassion --
I was still thrumming --
A tiny gesture, almost invisible.
This time is ending.
That which you were too selfish to desire.
Cleverest of all the toys.
-- smile fading,
I am on the surface.
I am no longer Siob; I am a tree.
The night is bright, beyond the thick green clouds. A paleohuman person could not see beyond those clouds. The twelve foolish, squishy bodies of that wanderer who settled here... Siob's friend, Siob's beloved lost-and-found comrade... those twelve foolish bodies could not see through these clouds.
Foolish wanderer, foolish friend, whose name I pretend to have forgotten. I won't think of it. I am not Siob. I am not Siob.
I am a tree. I am shaped into a tree, I am rooted in this grove. Sylvomorphic infrastructure. All around the night is thick with branches and their tangled shadows. I spread wide leaves above my bulk, and each leaf is a wide-band electromagnetic receptor, and my wide branches give me ample parallax, and I see through those green clouds.
The sky blazes. Stars untouched by the grubby hands of the people of the Margin.
Here and there, I see the traces of the Dispersal of Humanity, of the age when stars were wrought anew as engines and signal-fires, of the long decline since. Repurposed brown dwarf stars bubbling with computation. The slowly drifting scintillade-regions of swarm peoples. The subtle light-bending shadows of abandoned megastructures decaying in the darkness. So many worlds with traces of oxygen, of water, of carbon dioxide, in atmospheres once barren of them. So many of our fingerprints.
My warden, Chumo, sleeps in my branches. Chumo is a person of this world, a Madhouse warden by profession, and therefore, sensibly, mad. Chumo welcomed me here, Chumo has been my companion for many years, in this grove, this haven, my Madhouse.
There is a rustling in the forest. Someone is coming.
I watch the sky. Once we spread throughout that sky; you can see our traces. There were disseminations and wars and interpenetrations and pilgrimages and desubstantiations. There were tyrannies and ontocracies and republics and stochastocracies and anarchies and harmonia and chronoscopies and immanencies and subsumptions. There were great things built and abandoned. And we faded; we dwindled; we are scattered embers now, where once we leapt from star to star like flames.
Siob would have looked at that sky full of ruins and seen defeat, and danger. Siob would have worried. Siob would have desperately sought a way to fan those embers that remain.
But I am not Siob.
Beyond and among those stars that bear our fingerprints, are all the untouched places. Gas clouds and nebulae and the mighty swathes of dark matter, and all those stars we passed by, and all those stars that were beyond us. They perform their ineluctable celestial dance. The night is full. The night is wild and full.
The rustling in the forest grows nearer. Something wide and bulbous, rolling and crunching through the underbrush.
Siob did not know how to look beyond desperation. A desperate quest, a panicked rush, to find resilience for the descendants of humanity.
Siob did not know how to see the whole sky.
But I am no longer Siob. I am a tree. I am a tree in a grove on this nameless world. My roots hold tight to its body, and we whirl together through the night.
The wide and bulbous thing comes rolls the clearing. It is Gul. I have not seen Gul of the Margin for fifteen thousand years.
Gul rolls over to me, nestles against my trunk.
We say nothing.
But I am glad, so glad that Gul has found me.
Chumo sleeps in my branches.
Within the inviolable sphere of my brain, buried deep in my trunk, five hundred thousand years of Siob's memories are stacked and folded and put away, like winter clothes in a summer attic. They are not a prison, they are not a labyrinth, whatever Siob thought. They are just things, like the moss on my trunk; like Ship sleeping truculently in a wide orbit around this system, awaiting Siob's whistle; like a tender flame of plasma flaring from a young star.
At the horizon, its dark green smeared with a tiny streak of pink dawn, a star catches my attention. There is a flicker in its chromosphere; traces of a strange-matter reaction. Someone with Margin-level tech has touched that star.
It is anomalous. It is curious. It is interesting.
I would like to tell someone.
And when I think this, I think of a pink marble room, where water ripples across stone, and drinking tea.
Very well, I will remember the name: Thavé. My friend, my comrade... twelve bodies or no.
I think I am ready to see Thavé again. I would like to talk. Maybe Chumo and Gul will come with me.
Perhaps tomorrow I will not be a tree. Perhaps I will leave the grove. Perhaps I will be something new.
Siob, that exile, driven from world to world, seeking some fabulous resilience that would let everything endure... Siob felt that this was the end. Siob was consumed with that fear: that this was the end, the end of the long arc, the end of time. That we were here in the ruins, abandoned, struggling against the night.
But it is never the end of time. It is always the middle. We are always on the way. We spring up for a moment, we spread and grow, and then we go extinct, and it is the turn of some other configuration of matter. We are, then we are not.
But it is always now. It is always here. It is always the middle of time. And the night is wild and lush, and the night goes on forever.